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Ukraine Opposition Leader Leading in Polls

March 24, 2006

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ A pro-Russian opposition leader accused President Viktor Yushchenko of deceiving Ukraine to seize power in the 2004 Orange Revolution, telling thousands at a campaign rally Friday that it was time for a change of government.

The opposition leader, Viktor Yanukovych, is poised to make a stunning comeback from the defeat two years ago, when a court stripped him of his fraud-marred presidential victory and ordered a new vote, which was won by the pro-Western Yushchenko.

In a remarkable reversal of fortune, Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions is leading in opinion polls heading into Sunday’s election, ahead of the divided team of Yushchenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko _ the two leaders of the mass protests that became known as the Orange Revolution.

``That was a fraud intended to seize power, and look what they did with it,″ Yanukovych told a rally of supporters in downtown Kiev. ``They kept creating crises which Ukrainian people struggled to overcome.″

Several thousand people turned out for the nighttime concert, where some Ukrainian pop stars performed. The concert fell on the last day of campaigning as parties scrambled for the undecided among Ukraine’s 36 million registered voters.

In a taped television address to the nation, Yushchenko warned voters that they faced ``a choice between the past and the future.″

``It is a pity that those who yesterday were rigging the election and humiliating citizens today are calling for revenge. But I believe in the wisdom of Ukrainian people,″ he said.

He also pledged to hold Ukraine’s most democratic election ever, saying it would differ markedly from the fraud-marred 2004 presidential election that triggered the Orange Revolution protests.

``For the first time in the history of Ukraine, the absolute majority of the citizens believe the results will be defined by their vote,″ Yushchenko said.

Earlier in the day, Yushchenko’s party welcomed back a caravan that had returned to Kiev after crisscrossing the country to whip up support.

``We knew that it would be hard, that we would face forces which just a year and a half ago were ready to steamroll over us on Independence Square,″ said Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, referring to the giant central square where the 2004 protests began. Yushchenko’s party is struggling for a second-place finish, handicapped by widespread disappointment with the slow pace of reforms.

Yanukovych sought to capitalize on public frustration and anger.

``Can you govern a country like that: Cheating one part of the nation and putting another down on its knees?″ he told the rally, sounding much more authoritative than his presidential bid.

The election could determine how aggressively this former Soviet republic maintains the pro-Western course set by Yushchenko. Yanukovych has promised to restore ties with the Kremlin that were frayed under Yushchenko.

Yushchenko’s job is not at stake, but those of his prime minister and Cabinet are, as new constitutional reforms come into effect that give parliament more powers in shaping the government.

He will need a coalition partner, and has two choices: either reach out to Yanukovych _ whom he called a criminal just 16 months ago _ or make peace with Tymoshenko, the feisty former ally he fired from the prime minister’s post last year.

Oleh Rybachuk, Yushchenko’s chief of staff, said a coalition should be formed on the basis of democratic values and a commitment to Ukraine’s Westward course. Though he first said such a coalition should be based on Orange Revolution forces, he pointedly corrected the statement to ``democratic forces.″

Tymoshenko has insisted her party will team up only with her former Orange Revolution allies. ``Why did we have a revolution then?″ she told foreign reporters Thursday.

But Yushchenko has left his options open.

Yekhanurov, who tops Yushchenko’s party list, also didn’t completely rule out teaming up with Yanukovych.

``It’s doubtful,″ Yekhanurov said at a news conference. ``We will do our best to achieve an Orange coalition.″

Tetyana Ivanenko, 67, a Yanukovych supporter, said she wanted to see the pro-Russian Party of Regions take control.

``I want to be together with Russia and Belarus,″ Ivanenko said. ``We are so tired of America.″

___

Associated Press Writer Natasha Lisova also contributed to this story.

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